In June of 2009, I launched the (now defunct) Ravenous RPG site. My purpose and intent was to review RPG products, RPG posts/blogs/articles/etc. I fulfilled that purpose for a good number of years before shuttering the site due to lack of time to properly consume all of the great and wonderful things coming out of the RPG community. Of course, Gnome Stew was one of the many sites on my radar, and I consistently linked to articles and left thoughtful comments as best I could. Something in the way I reviewed, commented, chewed upon, and gave my introspection on RPGs caught the eye of the fine folks here at Gnome Stew.
Fast forwarding to leap day of 2016, I received a tweet from John Arcadian saying he wanted to talk to me about some RPG-related writing. As you can tell from my lengthy articles here, I’m more verbose than Twitter’s format allows in order to properly express my ideas. Instead of responding to the tweet, I dropped him an email. This started the conversation in which John invited me to join the Gnome Stew crew and outlined expectations, rules, guidance, and all that good stuff. Since I’m a digital pack rat, I still have all of those emails in my Gnome Stew email folder.
Obviously, I accepted the invite to join Gnome Stew, and posted my first article on Gaming, Narrating, and Simulating on March 28th, 2016. Phew. That was a rough start. I was given guidance that articles should be about 800 words with a hard cap of 1,000 words. (PS: The “hard cap” thing was my misreading of the instructions John had sent me. I’ve clearly gone way over that 1,000 word “hard cap” many times.) My first draft of the article sat at about 3,000 words. I cut it down to a hair over 900 to fit within the word range given to me. This made the article choppy, ineffective, short-sighted, and it received numerous negative comments because of this. Many of the comments were so deeply abusive that I thought about quitting Gnome Stew and requesting that John delete my one and only article. Fortunately, John came to my rescue, deleted the abusive comments, banned a few people from commenting, and then immediately jumped on our Slack channel to give me a much-needed boost in the form of a pep talk. I really needed that. Honestly, I should have bitten off a smaller topic for my first article. Such is hindsight, right?
Since that bumpy start, I’ve gone on to write and publish 91 (including this one) articles and reviews on Gnome Stew. Before I started typing this post, I was exactly 1,625 words shy of hitting exactly 100,000 words worth of Gnome Stew articles and reviews and such.
Now that you’ve seen my history with Gnome Stew, I’m going to touch upon some of my past articles that I think really helped me discover more about quality gaming as I wrote them. I’m hoping this retrospective will help you discover some older advice that I’ve dropped in the past. I’ll be going through them from the oldest articles to the newer ones. Maybe, if you look closely enough, you’ll discover my own evolution as a GM and player.
The first article I’d like to highlight is my PC Agency article. I wrote this one pretty early in my time with Gnome Stew because I deeply feel that this is a vital topic for everyone (GMs and players alike) to be aware of. If a GM (or another player) strips a player or their character of their agency, then there’s really no reason for the player to be at the table other than to maybe roll some dice, move some minis, and do some math to announce a result. That’s not fun for anyone. If you’re doing this to others at the table, then I recommend you go write a short story or novel where you truly are in full control of the actions of everyone involved.
The next one up is based on my education as an author. It’s about Character Arcs. Granted, there are many, many types of character arcs out there, but I boiled down things into Change, Growth, and Failure arcs. These concepts are probably oversimplification of things. I might revisit this article in a future, full-blown post now that I’ve learned quite a bit more about character arcs in the intervening years. I still stand by these three types of arcs as being foundational to all others, though.
How to Build a Custom GM Screen is the next article I want to highlight because I still refer to it and point people in its direction all the time. This article is, at its core, really about how to learn a new system. The GM screen is just part of the puzzle, but it’s an important one. Even if you abhor using a screen at your table, I still recommend making one. It’s part of the learning process. Maybe, instead of thinking of it as a barrier between you and the players, you can approach it as creating handouts for your players and yourself to assist everyone in learning the new game. The process is the same, but with a different physical artifact generated at the end of the effort.
I’ve been techno-geek my entire life (I starting doing software engineering when I was 7 years old). Since the 1990s, I’ve largely worked in or around computer security. The article I wrote on changing GMs within the same campaign was A Computer Security Approach To Changing GMs, and it’s one of the favorites that I have out of all of my articles. I think the reason it’s near the top of the list is because it scratched my computer geek itch and my RPG nerd itch all at the same time.
I’ve mentioned being an author (have you noticed?!?), and one of my favorite storytelling structures of all time is Scene and Sequel. In this article, I adopted the concepts of this structure to RPG sessions. At a high level, scenes are where the action takes place (social interactions, combat, chase scenes, high tension moments, etc.). The sequels are not the second story in a series, but the area of the story that immediately follows a scene where the characters have a little bit of downtime (not in the D&D 5th edition concept) to reflect on what just happened, be a bit retrospective, and make plans for what they want to do next. In theory, these plans lead directly into the next scene, and the whole process repeats over and over until the story concludes.
Hey! I write books. One of the more popular concepts in coalescing ideas in a structured manner is the MICE Quotient (created by Orson-Scott Card). Mary Robinette Kowal modified it into the MACE Quotient, which I think works a little better. I use MACE in my own storytelling when I’m in the midst of outlining my stories, and it’s saved me numerous headaches in avoiding restructuring stories during the editing process. On the RPG front, I modified MACE to be LACE Quotient. In LACE, the letters stand for Locations, Asks/Answers, Combats, and Events. Delve into the article to find out more details about each element of the LACE Quotient that I came up with.
The next article I want to talk about was written before I’d discovered Dungeon Crawl Classics. DCC had been out for about six years when I came up with this concept. I’m sure I’d heard of the game, but I had certainly never cracked the books or played the game. Since this time, I’ve had a chance to be a player in a few funnels, a few storylines, and quite a few adventures in DCC. It’s a hoot! Anyway, I conceived of this article based on my past experiences with the players playing “commoners” in their setting. These were characters that were down on their luck, had little in the way of possessions or wealth, and couldn’t really impact the world around them unless they worked together as a team. It’s a fascinating concept in any RPG system, and I still stand by what I wrote about Captivating Commoners.
What do you do when a player misses session zero at the start of a campaign? It happens. In my group, we do our best to adjust scheduling session zero to when everyone can make it, but that’s not always an option. It’s always extra work for the GM to get the missing player up to speed when they return to the table on the following session, but it can be done. It’s especially easier these days with online communication systems like Slack, Discord, Messenger, email, and so on. My article about Missing Session Zero has more details on how to handle this eventuality.
Leveraging Tech At The Table is another article that I refer to quite often. Even though this came out in 2019, not much has changed with my opinion and uses of tech at the table. Granted, the pandemic drove many people to play purely online (and many have stayed there), but this article talks about the meshing of online tech with the physical presence at the table. Go take a look at my horrible handwriting on the screenshots of my digital note taking efforts.
I had an attempt at running The Expanse fail spectacularly back in the middle of 2019. This was not the RPG’s fault. It was my fault. I learned nine important lessons on how to avoid this in the future, and I summarized my failures with advice points on 9 Steps For A Successful New Group Launch.
(… And at this point, I’ve hit my 100,000 word goal!)
(… But I’m still going to keep going through a few more article to highlight some others.)
In the “ye olde days” of creating dungeons, adventure creators would get “clever” and make location elements that were merely there to screw with the players (not the characters, but the players). In my article about Destroying Clever Maps, I delve into why this is utter garbage and wholly unrealistic even in a fantasy or far-flung sci-fi setting.
In 2020, I had a whole series of “interesting” articles where I threw out ideas for spicing up your settings and characters with “interesting” details, aspects, and facets. They were very well received by many people, so I wanted to make a list of them here:
- Interesting Foods
- Interesting Weather
- Interesting Foliage
- Interesting Urban Locations
- Interesting Fauna
- Interesting Rural Locations
- Interesting Magic Appearances
About two years ago, I put together an article detailing some Bizarre Traditions and wrote them up to make them sound as weird as possible, even though they are pretty mundane events. I did this to inspire folks to come up with their own oddities and traditional actions that are just slightly left of center. This one was a fun one to write because of the twisting of a “normal” activity to make it appear as bizarre as possible.
It’s generally accepted that railroading the PCs through the GM’s storyline is a bad thing. That’s not the point of this article, though. When I wrote Railroading The Rules, I had in mind that a story needed to be told in a certain manner to teach the rules, bit-by-bit, to players that might be new to a system or to RPGs in general. The approach I outline in the article is one that I’ve used with great success many times over the decades.
Another article I had a great deal of fun with was using Tattoos As Spellbooks in a D&D-style game system. This was a meme and conversation running about social media at the time, so I took a serious look at it from the GM’s perspective to see if I would allow it, what limitations there might be, and how those precious tattoos might get damaged. This truly was a joy to write, and I hope it’s inspired some folks to get tattoos on their wizards as an alternative to putting every spell inside a book.
I love running improv-style games. This is where I, as the GM, am completely unprepared for what the PCs are going to do next… and I do this on purpose! This makes for a more dynamic story, a deeper engagement level by the players, and leads to new hijinks that no one (sometimes, not even the players!) could have imagined happening. In my article about Running An Improv Game, I delve into how this can be done.
Is your world living or undead? I ask this question and clarify what I mean in my article about your World’s Heartbeat. This article generated quite a bit of conversation on social media, which is why I wanted to bring it to your attention.
I think that’ll be the last article I highlight in this (very) lengthy retrospective of 100,000 words (and then some) of writing for Gnome Stew.
I want to take a moment to pass along some much deserved thanks to various people:
- John Arcadian for bringing me on board.
- Angela Murray for starting the Gnomecast and for keeping Gnome Stew so well organized.
- Old Man Logan for editing 100,000 words (and then some) of mine.
- Phil Vecchione for showing me how it’s done on the GM advice side of things.
- Senda Linaugh for opening my eyes to the fact that good gaming is more than rules mastery.
- … and the rest of the Gnome Stew crew for many years of wonderful companionship online.
- … and to all of the wonderful readers and gamers out there that read our collective advice!
Thanks for letting me ramble through this brief trip in my history.
Here’s to another 100,000 words!